Her jaw cracked as she tried to open her mouth, and things seemed hinged in a bad way by her ears, maybe part of the whole emergency intubation. But she forgot about all that as a drop of his blood landed on her lower lip.
The scent alone was like food in a stomach when you were weak from hunger, everything waking up with vitality—no, fuck that. It was like a hit of cocaine. And then she was extending her dry tongue and licking—
Dimly, she was aware of groaning as her eyes rolled back in her head…and not because she was dying. Oh, no, she was suddenly very alive. His taste. His taste was like a crash cart hooking up to her sliced-and-diced heart, the jolt that went through her chest, cranking her entire circulatory system into a gear with so much more power.
“Take from me,” he said from a great distance. “Take it all…”
As he lowered his arm down, she formed a seal around his vein. Her first couple of draws were sloppy and uncoordinated—she cured that quick, though. Before long, she was taking the kind of long pulls you might if it had been years since you had been properly nourished.
Holy…shit…she had never had this kind of sustenance before. Craeg and Boone had volunteered earlier, back when she had been in and out of consciousness. And prior to that? It had been other civilians, just like herself. But Peyton was high-test to all that discount gas, to the point where the singeing path burning its way into her gut made her break out in a sweat—and sure enough, alarms began to go off, her heart thundering behind that recently sawed-open sternum of hers.
She really didn’t care if she stroked out. Or if her cardiac muscle exploded all over everything. Or if her head popped off her spine, her feet grew fifteen sizes bigger, or she went blind, deaf, and mute.
Instinct, bred into her species, took over, the hunger owning every part of her.
And then her eyes locked with Peyton’s.
She told herself this was about getting well, triumphing over her injury, making herself stronger. But the more she drank of him, the more she took of him into herself, it was clear there was another drive at work.
He was a meal she feared she was going to want again. Even when her survival was not at stake.
And she wasn’t going to need only blood.
Down the corridor, in the weight room, Ruhn lay with his upper body on a padded bench, his legs bent, his feet planted on the floor mats. The bar he gripped with his hands weighed fifty pounds or more and was made of iron. The disks racked on either end totaled some seven hundred pounds.
As he popped the load off the supports, he held it up above his chest and breathed deep as he steadied all that weight. Then he brought the bar down to his pecs, controlling the descent, a triumph of strength over gravity. With first the right hand and then the left, he realigned his grips a little…and then he pushed up, taking the bar high as he exhaled with a schhhhhhhhht. And then down. And then up. And then down…
He kept going until those pectorals began to seize and his biceps and triceps trembled and his elbows burned…and still he continued, to the point where he need to arch his spine to get the bar to its apex.
Sweat dotted his brow and then ran down into his hair and his ears. His thighs ached. His lungs ceased to work. His heart didn’t so much pound as blow up with every beat.
And still he did not stop.
The idea that he had been attracted to someone of the same sex was something he had never confronted before. Sure, he was aware that those liaisons occurred, but he’d always assumed it was just something the aristocracy indulged. Where he came from? As a lowly civilian from a traditional background?
No, his parents would never have approved of this, his father especially. That male had been very adamant about what the proper roles were for both sexes, and they had not included masculine coupling. He had also been clear about the expectations for each person in the family, mahmen, father, daughter, son.
And you wanted your elders to approve of you, especially after a youth where you were bigger than everybody else and shy as a fawn in social situations.
In fact, Ruhn had nearly killed himself to live up to what his father had needed from him, what his family had required. The idea of letting them down—
Wait, why was he thinking like this? As if he had already had sex with someone of the same…well, sex, as it were?
Because you want to kiss him. Admit it.
As the thought went through his head, he threw his no-I-don’t into the bar, shoving the weights up with the same kind of power he’d had when he’d first started. He absolutely did not want anything from that male. At all. Because if he did? Well, he’d already been through the nightmare of discovering a new, unacknowledged part of him, and that had been a horrible experience, to say the least.
He was not going through that again.
All at once, his arms gave out on him, the muscles failing, the weight going in a free fall that resulted in the bar landing directly on his chest. The pain was instant and paralyzing, those seven hundred and fifty pounds compressing his lungs as sure as if a building had fallen on him.
Instantly, a face appeared overhead. “Help me get this off you—come on, push! Goddamn it, PUSH!”
It was the surgeon, Dr. Manello.
As Ruhn began to black out, he was dimly aware of a piercing alarm in the weight room—no, it was a whistle. The human was whistling through his front teeth as he tried to relieve some of the pressure by straddling the bench and pulling up on the bar with both hands.
It did help. Ruhn could breathe some and his vision cleared a little.
Two more people came running in and then the crushing load was gone off of him. He still couldn’t inhale right, though. Had he broken his entire upper torso?
Dr. Manello’s face came back, real close. “I am not opening another chest cavity up tonight, do you hear me?”
And then there was a mask over his nose and mouth, a forceful stream of oxygen making his cheeks blow out and his throat go dry. The air tasted weird, like there were pencil shavings in it or flecks of tin—and that, coupled with the plastic form-fitting piece over his mouth and nose, made him feel like he was suffocating worse than he had been when he’d been left alone.
When he tried to push the mask away, strong hands prevented him.
But he was even stronger. A surge of pure panic shot him upright in spite of the people around him, and he tore the oxygen feed free.
To settle any arguments to the contrary, he opened his mouth and dragged all the air in the weight room down deep. Immediately, there was a horrid cracking sound, like an oak branch snapping in half, and a lightning bolt of agony accompanied the noise—still, his light-headedness fled like an intruder chased away, his heart hammering in an even rhythm.
“Well, there’s that approach to it, too,” Dr. Manello muttered. “Is it all right if I take a look at you?”
As Ruhn was still having to concentrate to get the inhale/exhale thing right, he simply nodded.
“Can you lie down for me?” the doctor asked.
Ruhn shook his head. Nope, no way. The panic would come back and take over—and with a shiver of claustrophobia, he looked at the door. Thank Fates that it had a window out into the corridor, and he reminded himself that there was a place to escape out of—
Someone came at him with something.
With a quick mortal reflex, he slapped a grip onto the wrist and bent the arm in its joint socket so hard and fast that whatever person was attached to it went down on the mats.
“Whoa, easy…” The Brother Rhage broke the hold and put his body in the way. “Hey, look at me. Come on, son, you focus on me now.”
Ruhn blinked. Blinked again. Tried to follow the command, but it was impossible. Rhage was jumping around like water on a griddle—oh, wait. Ruhn was shaking. Yup, those huge feet of the Brother’s were not moving; Ruhn was the one with the over-motorization.
“Where are you in there?” the Brother murmured. “ ’Cuz I need you to come back so you don’t hurt the doctor, ’kay?”
Something was wrong with his hearing. The volume was going up and down on the world, words fading in and out of mute with a randomness that required him to fill in the blanks.
Ruhn breathed in and out some more, and then he looked down, to where Dr. Manello was examining his own forearm like he was wondering if it was broken.